Customary Practice: A Small Victory over the Powers of Darkness

Certain little things make life worthwhile, providing a warm glow and a spring in your step that lasts far longer than might be expected. The smile of a pretty girl can do this; so can a really good kebab; but both of these pale into insignificance besides the joy of getting a cheque for forty quid in compensation from Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise. Next to that, winning the lottery is but an everyday trifle.

This particular escapade started when I ordered a bunch of laserdiscs and tapes from Tom Routledge in the States. The package arrived here apparently safely, but on closer inspection, it soon became apparent that…well, it had encountered hostile forces at some point along its journey across the Atlantic. And looking at the evidence, it seemed likely that said forces were in the shape of our beloved guardians, HMC&E, clearly taking a swift break from more important business — like making sure no-one brings back too much beer from Calais.

A swift call to my local Customs and Excise office brought me a copy of Excise Notice 1000, which is well worth having, since it tells you who to complain to should they get things wrong. [Of course, not that they ever do, being utterly infallible, but in these Citizen’s Charter days, every public organization must maintain the illusion of being “accountable” and “caring”.] And so, the following letter went off:

Dear Sir,

I wish to register a complaint regarding the recent handling of a package by your department. The package, containing a number of laserdiscs and a video-tape, was opened for inspection — I attach a copy of the sticker from the parcel. The video-tape had been watched, not rewound, and crammed into its case the wrong way round, but worst of all, the officer responsible had lost the inner sleeve for one laserdisk. The disk had been put back directly into the cardboard outer cover, and as a direct result of this sloppy handling, it arrived here severely scratched.

I appreciate that Customs have to examine parcels, but this in no way absolves them from a duty to exercise reasonable care in their handling of the contents. It is clear in this case such care was not taken. According to HM Customs & Excise Notice 1000, “Complaints and putting things right”, reimbursement will be made when Customs “damage…freight or baggage during an examination”, and this case seems to me an obvious example of such carelessness. I therefore request compensation of £40, to cover the cost of ordering a replacement disc from America.I look forward to hearing from you shortly. If you need any more details, please get in touch.

Yours faithfully
Jim McLennan

3rd APRIL Get called by a Mr.Porter, who wants to know a) the Trakback number on the parcel and b) if I’m claiming compensation of 40 quid, why I didn’t pay duty on it, since the free limit is only 15 pounds. Ah. Good question. I promise to phone him back with both pieces of information. I suspect they may end up charging me back-duty, which will eat into the compensation. However, I’m not too bothered since the main point of this exercise is not to make money, it’s to aggravate and annoy our moral guardians. And I seem to be doing that!

4th APRIL Mr. Porter isn’t there (which I’m not really too sorry about, since he comes over on the phone as one of those hard-nosed bastard types — I had to keep reminding myself that it was they who screwed up), but I give the information to his colleague. The computer has no information beyond the fact that the parcel was released on March 7th — he suggests it might have been Parcelforce to blame: apparently, they are the ones who open the packages, and pass them on to Customs if necessary. Quite how this made the inner sleeve of a laserdisc vanish, I’m unsure — it seems a trick worthy of David Copperfield. But rather than explain it all again, I just ask him to pass on the details. I am forced to wonder whether pig-sticking Customs and Excise is a Good Thing, given that I’m off to Paris next weekend. On my return, I can foresee them queueing up to greet me warmly with a latex glove: “Let’s see if we can find any laserdiscs in here, shall we?”

12th APRIL I return from Paris – unmolested – to find a letter from C&E, asking me to give them all the information I phoned them up and gave them the previous week! I just about manage to keep a grip on my sarcasm and write them a polite letter giving them the details again. The stamp on the envelope is one of those humourous “Greetings” one, with the caption, “I’m writing to you because you don’t listen to a word I say”. I refrain, however, from putting on the accompanying sticker that says “Whatever it is – I deny it”. Otherwise, it might have been the first case of an envelope being taken down and used as evidence.

Thank you for your letter of April 8th. Some of the details you request were already supplied on April 4th, to a colleague of Mr. Porter, as he was not at work that day. The gentleman to whom I spoke told me that the computer system contained no details, beyond that the parcel had been released on March 7th. However, since this information seems to have been lost since then, I will say, once more, that the Trackback number on the package was 0022 4553 594 9.

With regard to the other material requested, I will endeavour to provide evidence of the value as soon as possible — since the goods were paid for in advance, no invoice was sent with them, and I will need to contact the supplier. All the documentation for the order went via electronic mail, so would a print- out of the relevant message be acceptable?

29th APRIL “Unfortunately our computer system has been out of action and I have been unable to retrieve details of your importation, and therefore have been unable to investigate the circumstances fully…it is the responsibility of the Post Office (Parcelforce) to open parcels and to repack them again after Customs examination. It is possible therefore that the damage may have occured at this stage”.

This is the second time they’ve said this. I can hear them whine, “It’s all Parcelforce’s fault!”, in what is very clearly little more than an attempt to pin the blame on the Parcelforce donkey. Next letter, I expect to read “while the parcel was being opened, the laser-disc sleeve spontaneously combusted.” I also note a sentence, “Thank you for your letter dated 14.4.97 which was received here on the 21st”. Seven days for first-class mail? This seems like a flimsy attempt to meet the standards set in the previously mentioned Customs Notice 1000: “we will aim to issue a full response to your complaint within ten working days of receiving it”. Let’s just pretend it entered a time-warp somewhere along the line, shall we?

15th MAY After a catalog of disasters, up to and including my e-mail box being corrupted (are HMC&E sneaking into the house and screwing up the computer?), I get a duplicate receipt from the vendor in the States. I enclose a copy of the receipt as evidence of the cost and, setting my sarcasm to stun, point out that I am not going to let them pass the buck to Parcelforce.

I fully accept that Customs and Excise are entitled to open parcels and packages, but this in no way excuses damage caused to the contents. I am also at a loss to see how Parcelforce may conceivably have caused the inner sleeve to vanish, if their responsibilities are merely to open and repack parcels. However, hopefully you should soon be able to establish definitely what happened, and I look forward to hearing from you in due course.

29th MAY “I am afraid our computers are still down, and as such we have not been able to investigate your claim fully but in order to avoid further delay we will proceed and authorise compensation for £40, as requested, in full and final settlement of your claim”.

I seriously contemplate going down the off-licence and converting said forty quid into rather a lot of Stella Artois. However, it’s not an entirely comprehensive victory. The sentence that follows reads: “I should point out that both duty and VAT should have been charged on this consignment but in view of the inconvenience caused we will not pursue the underpayment of Customs charges in this instance”. They’re not bad at this veiled threat thing, are they?

The other thing that comes to mind is that beyond a “please accept our apologies for any inconvenience caused”, worthy of British Rail on a wrong-kind-of-snow day, they haven’t actually said they were at fault, or explained what happened to the parcel. Could they perhaps be aware that every word they say is being considered for publication in TC?

They also enclosed a copy of Notice 143, which had some interesting sections. As mentioned, if someone from abroad sends you goods, you are supposed to pay duty if they cost any more than £15 — how the hell they thought three video discs and a tape were worth less than that, I don’t know. However, if they are “gifts”, the duty-free allowance goes up to £36. I don’t think I need say a great deal more on what this means vis-a-vis getting stuff sent to you from overseas…

So I waited, with baited breath, for my compensation to appear. And I waited. And I waited. And just when I was about to enquire politely what was going on, what should come through the door but another one of those brown, window envelopes that I’d come to know and love.

16th JUNE

22nd JULY The cheque has now been safely stowed in my bank account, and peace has once more descended. But I am still suffering nagging doubts over the lack of any decent explanation. I thus send their computer system a get-well card, expressing my fondest hope that it’s now feeling a little bit better and asking if they have managed to discover the cause of the damage and what they’re going to do to prevent a re-occurence.

29th JULY “Unfortunately, we have had a great deal of trouble with our computer system and have only just got it back on line… [Three months! Our users are peeved if their computers go down for three minutes] It was presented to Customs & Excise by Parcelforce on 7th March 1997 when it was selected for an anti-smuggling examination. I have spoken to the officer concerned who cannot recall this specific case I am afraid after this length of time. [Lucky it didn’t go to court then, isn’t it?] It seems likely that in this case that either the officer did not replace the laserdisk in its sleeve, or that the Parcelforce official did not repack it properly… [Yep, still trying to blame someone else]

It would be normal practice for Parcelforce and/or Customs and Excise to keep a record of any damage incurred, depending on who was responsible. I have examined both our records and that of Parcelforce and found no details of your parcel. That is unusual. [=”You are a lying bastard”] I have therefore reminded my staff of the need to record details of any accidental damage incurred… I apologise for any distress that our action has caused, and the damage sustained to your parcel, but hope that you understand our need to be vigilant against smuggling”

My goodness, if I didn’t know better, and that all HMC&E officers are required to have their sense of humour bypassed on joining the organisation, I would say that the last sentence was bordering on the deliciously sarcastic. It’s still not what you would quite call a grovelling admission of blame, but I guess it will just have to do.

I’m sure that readers will appreciate the satisfaction to be gained from the above saga — though I cashed the cheque, naturally, seeing how the disc is still playable, I haven’t bothered ordering another copy [The damage is quite easily visible: while it had actually only been watched once, it looks like a seriously ex-rental purchase] What makes it more ironic, is that the film in question was Hong Kong Category III classic, ‘Sex and Zen’, a film which has since had over four minutes hacked out of it by the BBFC — perhaps making it the kind of evil and immoral material for which Customs were looking. That they ended up paying for my copy, is a sweet victory indeed.